Paolo Sorrentino's "The Great Beauty," a nostalgic, melancholic ode to the eternal city Rome, is one of several films that touch on the unraveling of contemporary Italy in official selection at the Cannes film festival this year.
Also competing for the prestigious Palme d'Or award to be handed out on May 26 is "Un Chateau en Italie" ("A Castle in Italy") by Franco-Italian director Valeria Bruni Tedeschi about the demise of an aristocratic family.
Italian actress Valeria Golino makes her directorial debut with "Miele" ("Honey") about a woman who helps terminal patients end their lives. The movie is competing in the "Un Certain Regard" category for emerging filmmakers.
Bathed in the beautiful Roman light of yellows and golds, "La Grande Bellezza" ("The Great Beauty") is a lush, sweeping film that both critiques the emptiness of life and revels in it.
We first meet protagonist Jep Gambardella, played by Toni Servillo, at a late-night bash that makes the famed "bunga bunga" parties of Silvio Berlusconi look tame.
Jep is living the high life on the laurels of a famous novel he wrote 40 years ago, and now at 65 is stuck in a rut.
As he reflects on the possibility of writing again, he questions his hedonistic life and his rich, vapid friends, whom he entertains at raucous parties at his apartment overlooking Rome's Colosseum.
"The film tries to portray a poverty that is not material," Sorrentino told reporters on Tuesday. "At the same time, we're not passing a negative judgment but showing what it is, and it symbolizes our country."
"A BY-GONE TIME"
With its thousands of years of civilization on show at every turn, Rome is a character in "The Great Beauty" and Sorrentino's camera guides us like a privileged guest through locked palaces, interior courtyards and private terraces.
"You have a portrait of a city that symbolizes a certain human condition," Servillo said. "It doesn't symbolize hope at all, but rather missed opportunities, a by-gone time."
In a review, Screen magazine called "The Great Beauty" a "virtuoso piece of filmmaking.
"An alternately elegiac and world-weary cinematic fresco of contemporary Rome that references both the melancholy hedonism of 'La Dolce Vita' or Fellini's 'Roma' and the decadence of the latter days of the Roman empire," wrote reviewer Lee Marshall.
Sorrentino's "Il Divo" ("The Divine") based on Italy's ex- Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, won Cannes' 2008 Jury Prize.
Tedeschi, an actress/director and sister of former French first lady and supermodel Carla Bruni - chooses as the centerpiece of "A Castle in Italy" an Italian family who can no longer afford the upkeep of their ancestral castle.
Inspired by the famous Chekhov play "The Cherry Orchard," the film mixes the story of the impending sale of the castle with the death of a brother, and a budding relationship between the lead character, played by Tedeschi, and a much younger man played by French actor Louis Garrel.
In "Honey," director Golino deals with another kind of death, euthanasia, following a young woman who works outside the law to ease the suffering of the terminally ill.
The issue of euthanasia is not the focus of the film, but rather the inner goings-on of the edgy heroine, played by Jasmine Trinca, who never emotionally engages with her clients until she meets one who turns out not to be sick at all.